Education and Social Change
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Education and Social Change

Contours in the History of American Schooling

John L. Rury

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eBook - ePub

Education and Social Change

Contours in the History of American Schooling

John L. Rury

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About This Book

This brief, interpretive history of American schooling focuses on the evolving relationship between education and social change. Like its predecessors, this new edition investigates the impact of social forces such as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and cultural conflict on the development of schools and other educational institutions. It also examines the various ways that schools have contributed to social change, particularly in enhancing the status and accomplishments of certain social groups and not others. Detailed accounts of the experiences of women and minority groups in American history consider how their lives have been affected by education at key points in the past.

Updates to this edition

  • A revised final chapter updated to include recent changes in educational politics, finance, policy, and a shifting federal policy context

  • Enhanced coverage and new conceptual frames for understanding the experiences of women and people of color in the midst of social change

  • Edited throughout to update information and sources regarding the history of American education and related processes of social transformation in the nation's past

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Colonial America

Religion, Inequality, and Revolution

A good point to begin thinking about changes in American education is the colonial era. Extending from the 17th century (1607) to the Revolutionary War (1776–1783), it spanned nearly two centuries. This was a beginning for much of what eventually came to be seen as elements of American culture, distinct from other parts of the world. And it was an era of sweeping social changes, before industrialization and large-scale urban development. Colonial society was agricultural and it was cast on a small scale. But it also was in flux, experiencing growth and other changes that eventually led to Revolution and a new age in history.
A revealing glimpse into colonial society is offered by one of its best-known and most historically controversial figures. It provides a sense of life at the time, and insight into an essential aspect of education: growing up.

Life in a Colonial Setting

It is difficult to imagine today, but North America seemed a truly “New World” in colonial times. At least this was true for Europeans who came to settle, or to profit and plunder. It was a vast stretch of time, and much happened between the moment when the first White settlers arrived and the Revolution. A largely English colonial society took root, and it evolved rather quickly from one generation to the next. On the western side of the continent, and in Florida and the southwest, Spanish settlements appeared, and they too witnessed considerable change. This was an early form of what today is called globalization. It was a complicated process, but it is still possible to make certain observations about the time. It was quite different from today.
Most of North America was a vast wilderness then, inhabited by a native population numbering perhaps ten million throughout the continent. Visitors to New England reportedly could smell pine trees more than a hundred miles offshore. The first European settlements were tiny, and did not extend very far into the interior. Residents lived in close proximity to nature, and its hardships were a major preoccupation, especially the weather and wild animals or pestilence. Life in these circumstances was a constant battle against the elements, and dogged perseverance was necessary for survival.
Of course, the North American continent was already inhabited when English settlers arrived. The Native Americans, or “Indians,” as they had been dubbed by Columbus, included hundreds of different social and cultural groupings. The vast majority lived in agricultural and hunting societies, on a scale considerably smaller than European nations, apart from certain tribal federations. Although the American Indian population was substantial, it was spread thinly across the landscape. Divided into many different tribes and lacking advanced military technology, the Native Americans were often unable to prevail against Europeans in disputes. As a consequence, they were eventually defeated, exploited, and pushed out of the way to make room for the expanding White population. In educational terms, this was among the most basic and profound lessons taught by the experience of colonial settlement: the Europeans saw Native Americans as an inferior people. When not feared, they were crushed and discarded if seen standing in the way of “progress,” and pitied or made “civilized” once defeated (Nash, 1974/2000).
The self-righteous attitudes of Europeans who felt superior to American Indians took different forms, and weren’t always expressed in hostility or violence. Some newcomers adopted an early form of racism, speculating that inherent mental differences accounted for observed European superiority. Others found themselves beguiled by the handsome features of natives, or by their seemingly modest, natural lifestyle. But even the “friends” of the Native Americans sought to convert them to Christianity, teach them European morality, or undermine their culture in countless other ways. This initial contact between two vastly different traditions marked an early process of social change in American history. It was a transformation that proceeded largely in one direction, with American Indian society being forcefully pushed to the margins of the emerging European-based civilization, even though Whites learned a great deal from Native Americans in the process (Axtell, 1985). In light of this history, the term New World is both telling and ironic.

The Different Worlds of Colonial North America

The cultural interaction and displacement that led to European domination was in full bloom by the time Englishmen came to settle in the 17th century. British North America grew to be a large, diversified land, extending along the Atlantic seaboard in different colonies. Religious expatriates started some of these settlements; others were founded for personal or collective gain. The land was marked by different climates and a varied topography, and settled by people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Thus, it is difficult to generalize about the colonial population and the educational practices and institutions of the time. It is wrong, in short, to speak of a single, unitary colonial culture. Although the colonies shared a number of similarities, each was quite distinctive—especially when it came to everyday culture and educational customs.
Spanish colonial settlements were a bit different. Spaniards launched exploratory missions and dispatched expeditions in search of fortune nearly a century before the English. In North America, they established outposts that grew into settlements in Florida during the 16th century, Texas in the 17th century, and along the Pacific coast in the territory of California during the 18th century. These colonies did not attract large numbers of settlers. Instead, they generally consisted of missions and ranches, with garrisons of troops for protection. These outposts were attacked by British and French raiders, especially in Florida. The principal point of Spanish settlement and political authority lay to the south in Mexico (Rawls & Bean, 2003; Weber, 1994).
Most historians divide British colonial America into three regions, each with a large contiguous territory (Henretta, 1973; Main, 1965). The first, in order of settlement, was the South, which began with Jamestown in 1607. Representing the colonies of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, the South specialized in commercial agriculture, and developed a social structure and cultural traditions well adapted to its dominant economic interests. Just to the north were the middle colonies, the largest of which were Quaker Pennsylvania and Dutch New Amsterdam, later named New York by the English. These colonies, which also included New Jersey and Delaware, featured a heterogeneous mix of peoples who came for a variety of purposes. To the north of the middle colonies was New England, perhaps the most familiar colonial region, and oft-noted in regard to the history of education.
Different patterns of economic development and cultural and political traditions characterized each region. All of the colonies were preindustrial and local economies were dominated by agriculture, but climate and terrain dictated the way people worked and lived. The South, with its relatively warm climate and long growing season, exported commodities such as tobacco and, to a lesser degree, rice, along with other cash crops. Land was plentiful but workers were not, so Southern landholders turned to involuntary labor. This meant indentured servants at first, but eventually they utilized large numbers of African slaves. This was accompanied by the development of racist ideology, which took decades to evolve. In the North, large-scale agriculture of this sort was rare, and small freeholder farms predominated, usually worked by a single family. The quality of land for cultivation varied a good deal. These farmers generally produced little for the export market, although many participated in the expanding local trade, particularly as nearby settlements grew (Henretta, 1973; Hofstadter, 1971).
Culturally, different traditions characterized each of these regions, but there were many localized customs as well. In the South, for example, the wealthy planters (plantation owners) represented a cultural and political leadership. Even if they were a minority of the population, they set the tone for prevailing values and institutional development, including educational practices. Elsewhere, the local colonial leadership was dictated by the circumstances of each colony’s founding. Religion was an important factor in the cultural character of many settlements, especially in the North. Spiritual belief remains a key aspect of culture today, of course, but it was especially significant then. Religious convictions were critical elements of individual identity, much the way nationalism or ethnic heritage may be today. It was an age of religious ferment, moreover, and there was considerable conflict between rival faith traditions in Europe. The settling of North America followed closely on the heels of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counterreformation, events that shaped British politics and international conflict (Fischer, 1989; Morgan, 1975). Religion was especially influential when it came to education.
Denominational influences differed widely across the colonies. In the South, the wealthy planters were generally Anglican, the Church of England, which had split from Catholicism during the reign of Henry VIII. On the other hand, dissident religious groups, hoping to practice their beliefs outside the established church, largely settled the New England and middle colonies. The Quakers in Pennsylvania were one such group, along with Catholics in Maryland, and a little later Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. But the best-known and probably the most important of the religious colonies were those established in New England. It is there that discussions of the connection between religion and education in American history usually begin.

Religion, Culture, and Education

Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims launching Plymouth Colony during the early 1600s. Like them, many migrants to British North America came in pursuit of religious autonomy. Other groups seeking to practice their own faith settled nearby, the most important being the Puritans. They founded Massachusetts Bay Colony and the city of Boston, which became the region’s most important settlement. Their beliefs and behavior reflected elements of what became American culture in the years to follow.
The Puritans—like many British settlers in northern colonies—were resolute Protestants. In particular, they were followers, to one extent or another, of the French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564), who rejected papal authority to form a church based on biblical interpretation and faith. They departed England because they believed it corrupt and decadent, and they hoped to establish a more perfect social order based on moral authority and religious virtue. Like many other Protestants, they rejected the seemingly empty rituals in Catholic and Anglican religious practices. They held that each person bore an individual relationship to God, based on piety and goodness, although they were hardly prudes. The search for religious freedom, however, did not always mean they were willing to tolerate the views of others. There were occasional sectarian conflicts that marked the first century of settlement in New England (Miller, 1956, 1959; Rutman, 1977). Such clashes notwithstanding, most people who came to this part of British North America believed that the grace of God was manifest in the lives they led.
The religious beliefs of the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and other groups in New England held great consequence for education. It would not be wrong, as suggested earlier, to view religion as a principal component of the ideology of the age. Perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Protestantism was the belief that each person needed to form a connection with God. To do this one had to be able to read and interpret the Holy Scripture, catechisms, and other religious writings; in particular it meant that every man, or person, should know the Bible. This required literacy, and the ability to reason from principles conveyed through a variety of texts. It was a set of skills that earlier generations of Europeans had not cultivated widely. In the era of Calvinist Protestantism, however, becoming literate and knowledgeable was believed a great virtue in the service of religion. This meant that historically new importance was attached to education.
Social theorists have long debated the historical significance of Protestantism, and Calvinism in particular, as a transforming influence in Western civilization. Max Weber, the celebrated German social theorist, argued that the Protestant Reformation was linked to the rise of capitalism and its distinctive social and ideological features. In particular, he suggested that Protestant predilections for simplicity and thrift, hard work, and self-improvement influenced the merchants, financiers, and forward-looking aristocrats who helped shape modern capitalist society (Weber, 1930). It was an ideological outlook especially well suited to capitalism as a social and economic system. In the New World, it influenced thousands of small free-holding farmers and the entrepreneurs who served them as tradesmen, innkeepers, and peddlers. While the relationship between religion and economic and social development was not necessarily direct and immediate, historians agree that the appearance of Protestantism in the 16th century began an era of unprecedented social change (Landes, 1998).
The movement of Europeans to North America, in that case, can be considered a part of a massive social and ideological shift that occurred at this time (1500–1800). This certainly can be said of the first European settlers in what became New England. The rise of Protestantism in its various forms signaled a renewed commitment to human perfectibility and moral impro...

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Citation styles for Education and Social Change
APA 6 Citation
Rury, J. (2019). Education and Social Change (6th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Rury, John. (2019) 2019. Education and Social Change. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Rury, J. (2019) Education and Social Change. 6th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Rury, John. Education and Social Change. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.